James Taylor Has Magic Fingers

James Taylor

Even with an artist as innovative as James Taylor, I assumed that most aspects of his guitar style and technique would be relatively orthodox. This turned out to be anything but.

Though there are many great musical devices that he employs throughout his wide ranging repertoire of folk-rock hits, I find the most fascinating to be the way he approaches fingering chords. Specifically, his method for fingering the standard A major and D major chords deserves special attention.

Anyone who’s spent time with the guitar has probably delved into the classic CAGED guitar chords. These are your most commonly played major chords for C, A, G, E, and D using open strings. E, A, and D are especially interesting because these three are all variants of the same fingering, just starting on a different root or string.

In any event, all theory aside (though I’ll come back to this), most guitarists would finger a D chord as shown at below left. However, James fingers a D chord as shown below at right.

Standard D major guitar chord

James Taylor’s D major guitar chord

This is not a hard substitution to make, and in some ways, feels just as natural or even more natural than the commonly accepted fingering.

However, when you start to look at the A major chord (below left), James uses a similar approach — an approach that in my estimation requires magic fingers. The standard fingering for an A major chord is shown as left, but James uses a fingering shown at below right that is the exact inverse.

Standard A major guitar chord

James Taylor’s A major guitar chord

I do not have the biggest hands, and I can barely get my fingers to fit on or below the 2nd fret using this configuration. To make matters worse, James is 6’3″ with much larger hands, so either he has the world’s tiniest fingertips (this could be part of the equation), or he has magic fingers that can move in and out of this type of fingering with ease.

Taking this issue one step further, James often capos up to the 3rd fret for songs like “Fire and Rain” and “Something In The Way She Moves”, so that his A chord is actually a C chord (for vocal purposes). If you look at a guitar, you can see that as you go higher up the neck, the space between frets becomes narrower and narrower. But he still employs the same fingering technique.

From a theory standpoint (unfortunately, I did say I’d come back to this), James’ approach to fingering these chords makes sense because, you can easily move from major and minor variants of the same chord simply by moving your 1st finger one fret lower (see below).

James Taylor’s A major guitar chord

James Taylor’s A minor guitar chord

However, the main advantage of the conventional approach is that you can throw in suspensions with ease. With James’ approach, you need to be pretty nimble with your pinky to make it happen (a whole different topic for another time), but if you have magic fingers, of course, well, no problem.

The only other variable in this equation is that the guitars he uses are somehow of a larger scale. Custom made by James A. Olson Guitars, no mention is made of anything in the design that would favor this technique.

Thus, I propose that James Taylor has magic fingers.

Attack of the 27 String Guitar

As the saying goes, sometimes 6 strings just isn’t enough. And sometimes 26 strings isn’t enough either.

Enter Keith Medley, a Kentucky native and Nashville sideman, who’s been building guitars almost as long as he’s been playing them. When he got off the road in the late 80s, he dedicated himself to building custom guitars, first for one of the large manufacturers, and eventually for his own company, Medley Guitars.

His crowning achievement to date is a 27-string guitar, built in his home shop, from a design he drew in the late 70s. As Keith puts it:

“I build guitars for no other reason than to make music. The music I hear is more than what can be played on six strings, so after many detailed sketches and long nights of contemplation I came up with a unique 27-string instrument.”

Check out the video of Keith and the 27-string guitar below. And if you like what you see, and want to see more, please consider donating a few bucks to the documentary film in progress about Keith and the instrument.

Watching the video, several things are evident. The guitar has incredible tone from top to bottom; Keith has the perfect combination of fingerpicking, left-hand legato technique with hammers and pulls, and bends and slides to get the most out of the instrument; and he has a very refined sense of composition that really complements the sound of the guitar.

So the only remaining question is: how long does it take to tune that thing …?

The Photography of Martin Cohen

Martin Cohen

For over 50 years, Martin Cohen has taken hundreds of thousands of photos of some of the greatest musicians in the world of Latin and jazz music. Whether the subject is Dizzy Gillespie, Carlos Santana, Celia Cruz, or Tito Puente, his photography is both an invaluable archive of music history and a symbol of his devotion to the music.

This week, the New York Times published a great article and sampling of these photos, chronicling one man’s relationship to the lens and the artists. So great is the body of work that a new US Postage stamp, to be issued later this year commemorating Latin music legends, will bear a photo he took of Tito Puente in the 1980s.

As so often happens, the love of the music inspired Martin to form a company based around the musical instruments used in the music’s creation; a company that’s flourished since its origin in the 1960s; a company by the name of Latin Percussion — also known informally as LP.

To me, even more fascinating than Martin’s exploits as a photographer or his work as founder of LP, is the fact that the instruments he created actually affected and influenced the music he loves. LP instruments are actually woven into the fabric of jazz and Latin music history.

The opportunity to become a maker of percussion instruments presented itself in the early 1960s when a trade embargo with Cuba caused a drought in quality bongos. A mechanical engineer by trade, Martin fashioned his own set, which came to be prized by musicians everywhere, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, besides offering hundreds of quality percussion instruments, LP strives to educate budding drummers everywhere via their websites like Congahead, about which Martin writes:

“I began this website in order to share my good fortune in knowing many of the world’s finest percussionists and instrumentalists. I wanted to share the images, recordings, interviews, and movies I made of these legendary musicians. Within Congahead you will find many exciting sound clips, movies, photos and interviews from my personal collection.”

To further illustrate, here’s a clinic in precision — a percussion solo by Leo Di Angilla using LP Classic Accents Congas, LP Karl Perazzo Timbales and LP Caxixi:

Setting the Moog for Musicians Everywhere

Moog Synth

It’s not possible to discuss electronic music without encountering the influence of Bob Moog. One of the first inventors of the portable synthesizer back in the late ’60s, his instruments have been used by a myriad of musicians and artists, from The Beach Boys to Aerosmith to John Cage.

Whether it’s the overdriven monophonic synth bass powering bands like Parliament and Devo, or the whirling Theremin sounds used by Jimmy Page in Whole Lotta Love and No Quarter, Moog Music has been a driving force. And since Bob’s passing in 2005, his current legacy is only gathering steam.

This past weekend rang in Moogfest 2010, a three day festival in Asheville, NC, where Bob spent the last few decades of his life. With more than 60 acts ranging from bands to DJs to Theremin soloists to synth geeks playing at five different venues in downtown Asheville, the event averaged 7,000 to 7,500 people daily to help raise money for the Bob Moog Foundation. The foundation’s goal: the creation of a “Moogseum” in Asheville centered on Bob’s extensive archives.

Today, Moog Music makes an incredible array of electronic instruments, ranging from their signature analog synths to pedals to guitars to iPhone Apps. Here’s a quick look at some of the goodies:

The Moog Guitar

Etherwave Theremin

Moogerfooger Ring Modulator Guitar Demo

Filtatron iPhone app

One constant point of contention is the pronunciation of his last name. Though many people, including members of his extended family, pronounced it “moo-g” as in the sound from a cow, I recently found out that he preferred that which rhythms with “vogue”. During one NAMM show some years ago, when Jim and I approached the Moog booth to discuss how might be able to work together, the sales rep went to find Robert Moog himself to talk to us. As we waited and I started to fret about which pronunciation of Moog I was going to add to the “Mr.” in my head as I addressed him, he appeared, stuck out his hand, and preemptively said, “Hi, I’m Bob …”

And so Bob he became.